History

The Riverdale history program encourages students to make sense of the dynamics that have shaped the contemporary global system and prepares them to become rational, knowledgeable, and humane democratic citizens and social actors, capable of effectively and ethically responding to the national and global challenges of the modern world.

The ninth- and 10th-grade sequence provides an age-appropriate introduction to the development of the contemporary global capitalist world-system. In the 11th and 12th grades, students take the required Constructing America and ILS courses but also have the option of choosing from a wide array of electives. Our thematic approach to electives and to Constructing America helps students develop the important skill of taking complex factual information and filtering it through an appropriate analytical lens. Interdisciplinary team-teaching allows faculty to model discourse and for students to see that reasonable, thinking, educated adults often disagree. Students leave Riverdale with a nuanced understanding of the most important ways in which economic, political, cultural, and social developments in different parts of the globe have become interdependent, and with the ways in which past events have shaped and continue to shape their present-day realities. We hope that Riverdale graduates will remember to think historically; we want them to continue to ask “How did things come to be this way?” These kinds of questions prompt them to think about their own position in the world: “How can I make a difference for the good?”

Please select below for either required or elective courses.

History I: Emergence of Modern Society—Required

History I: Emergence of Modern Society 

The first half of the department’s two-year required sequence focuses on the history of the world system from its beginnings in the 15th century until the early 19th century. The course commences with an overview of the world system at the dawn of the 21st century, using a case study of Wal-Mart as a lens into the operations of a modern multinational corporation. There is then a brief study of non-capitalist social formations in North America on the eve of European expansion, Imperial China, and medieval Europe. The course then examines the break-up of European feudalism, the emergence of a market society, and the evolution of the modern state system; mercantilism, colonialism, and the creation of a Eurocentric world system; the new, universalistic understandings of human nature, human society, and human history generated by the European core of this world system; and the institutional expression of these understandings established by the 18th-century revolutions in the United States and France.

History II: Making of the Global Order—Required

History II: Making of the Global Order 

The second half of the department’s two-year required sequence focuses on the history of the modern world system from the beginning of the 19th century to the present. The course starts by investigating the industrial capitalist society that emerged in Britain during the first half of the 19th century. It then examines the new ideologies of 19th-century Europe: liberalism, social Darwinism, and nationalism. Students study the emergence of capitalist modes of industrial production in Europe and the United States and the various ways in which structural changes were assimilated and legitimated. An extended analysis of the dynamics and ideology of late-19th- and early-20th-century imperialism is followed by an investigation of the decline of British world hegemony, the struggle for mastery in the world system (i.e., World War I and World War II), the Cold War, and the emergence of the American imperium. The course also focuses on socialist and nationalist movements and on the experience of newly industrializing nations of Asia. It concludes with another look at the contemporary world, its threats and promises.

Constructing America—Required

Constructing America

An interdisciplinary course, team-taught by teachers from the history and English departments, that introduces juniors to the history of American civilization and culture. The focus is on the ways in which Americans have—from the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the Gulf War and beyond—asserted the special nature of American society even while they have contested and interrogated the meaning of such “exceptionalism.” The course seeks to investigate and understand the various modes through which Americans have explored a sense of American uniqueness by examining a variety of political and literary genres: treatises, essays, letters, speeches, sermons, diaries, fiction, and poetry. It examines political texts—e.g., the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, Letter from a Birmingham Jail—from a literary as well as a historical perspective, with attention to their uses of rhetoric and literary devices. And it likewise examines literary texts—e.g., the poetry of Whitman and William Carlos Williams, the prose of Herman Melville and William Faulkner—from a sociological as well as a rhetorical-aesthetic perspective, with attention to their capacity to illuminate moments in the nation’s political, and intellectual transformation.

Crucial questions investigated include: How have Americans defined national identity? How have they contested fixed and stable understandings of “the American” and sought to replace them with plural and shifting identifications? How has the national literature enunciated the evolving relationship between creativity and politics, entertainment and education? How can narrative modes be read as reflections of American experiences? How have Americans imagined and represented the defining differences between American literature, sensibility, landscape, and humor and those of Europe and the rest of the world? How have philosophers and poets, politicians and journalists, elite and dispossessed classes conceived of America as a place of particular opportunity, providence, and oppression? How have the actual experiences of various categories of Americans mirrored and/or contradicted these conceptions?

Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS)—Required

Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS) 

ILS, a required course for seniors, is a multidisciplinary examination of questions of fundamental human importance. The primary goal is to develop students' critical thinking through close reading of primary sources, discussion-based learning, and analytical writing. During the first twenty weeks of the course, students read works in a variety of disciplines to explore two essential questions that have been central to human civilization since its beginnings and that continue to engage contemporary thinkers. One is an ontological question, "who or what are we as human beings?" and the other a moral and political question, "how ought we to live and conduct our lives?" These two questions, ("Self" and "Virtue" for short) provide the framework for detailed study and discussion of specific works and are intended to help students to formulate good questions of their own within these fields of discourse. The questions are examined through the lenses of different disciplines, such as Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Psychology to create a multidisciplinary perspective. Students study a set of core texts in common along with choices introduced by individual instructors. Among the core texts are Levi's "Survival in Auschwitz," Plato’s "Meno," Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics," the anonymous Buddhist text "The Questions of King Milinda," Montaigne's "On Repenting," selections from the writings of Nietzsche, Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents," W. E. B. DuBois's "The Souls of Black Folk" (on double consciousness), de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex," Ayn Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness," and Kenzaburo Oe’s 1964 novel "A Personal Matter." In addition, instructors offer a variety of elective texts including extracts from Homer’s "Iliad," Saint Augustine's "Confessions," Rousseau's "Reveries of the Solitary Walker," Nietzsche's "Genealogy of Morals," Borges' "Everything and Nothing," Horney's "New Ways in Psychoanalysis," Geertz's "From the Native's Point of View," Gopnik's "The Philosophical Baby," and Truffaut's film, "L'Enfant Sauvage." Two five-week units follow, dealing with "Human Beings and the Environment" and "Human Beings and Society." In these units, students will examine major issues that they will have to confront in their future careers. This year the focus of these units will be climate change and social justice, using Kolbert's "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" and Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" as core texts. The intention is that students should draw upon the theoretical understanding they have developed in "Self" and "Virtue" to explore these topics. These units will allow students to make connections between the theoretical work of the first part of the course and their own questions concerning how we should act in tackling real-world questions. The course ends with a short elective unit in which each of the eight members of the ILS faculty will offer students different choices, such as in-depth reading and discussion of a major and substantial novel, the history of science, and opportunities for off-campus experiential learning. ILS assessment includes frequent impromptu writing, student-directed discussions and presentations to classmates, and the writing of interdisciplinary analytical papers.

The Art of Africa (yearlong, or fall or spring semester)

The Art of Africa

The course will introduce students to the history of African art. Student may take the course for both semesters or either semester. The first semester will address the art of sub-Saharan Africa from the sixth to 19th centuries. Topics will include the art of the Ife (from present-day Nigeria), the Royal Art from the Court of Benin, the art of the Dogon (from present-day Mali), Islamic architecture in Mali, and the connections between the origins of the kente cloth in the Asanti kingdom (present-day Ghana) and the contemporary artist El Anatsui. The second semester will cover the art of African-American artists, both men and women, from the nineteenth-century to the present. Students will learn to recognize, articulate, and analyze the following aspects of works of art: visual composition and style, historical and religious context, geographical context, content, medium, iconography, and patronage. Assignments will include analytical essays, research essays, and slide-illustrated presentations.

First Semester: The Art of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Second Semester: African-American Art.

Constitutional Law and the American Political System (fall semester)

Constitutional Law and the American Political System

This course will focus on modern constitutional issues and the political processes through which they are addressed. Every year litigants appeal approximately eight thousand cases to the Supreme Court, but fewer than one hundred are heard. Who sets the agenda for the Court? What social and political circumstances affect a case's likelihood of review? How sacred is precedent in our common law system? To what extent do the justices allow "original intent," political ideology, legislative history, international law, and public opinion to shape its decisions? Is it possible for judges to be impartial arbiters of the law, immune to the political realities that surround them? In addition to learning about the procedures and practices of the Court, students will examine closely the relevant case law through which justices frame consideration of today's most pressing civil rights and balance-of-power questions. Every member of the class will have the opportunity to research and lead a discussion on a major question either recently decided or currently under consideration by the Court.

The Global 1960s (fall semester)

The Global 1960s

In this course we examine the vivid and tumultuous social, political, and cultural movements of the 1960s across the globe. We begin with liberation movements of the 1950s (decolonization in Africa and Asia, nationalist revolution in Cuba, and the black freedom movement in the U.S.) in the context of the deepening Cold War. These movements not only changed the political contours of the globe but also sparked social movements in other countries, first in support of decolonization and then directed against the structures of authority in their own societies.

Topics we explore in depth include the Vietnam Wars; student movements of Japan, the U.S., Western Europe, and Mexico; the development of feminism and other social movements; the rise of countercultures; Czech challenges to Soviet authority; and the cataclysmic events of 1968 across the world.

Our sources include scholarly articles, memoirs, speeches and essays, films, music, photos, stories, and other primary sources. Students write regularly in various formats (informal impromptu writing, online journal entries, brief analytical essays) and are expected to participate actively in each class session. Students have an opportunity to do brief research forays into areas of personal interest.

Health Care Policy (fall semester)

Health Care Policy

The Affordable Care Act (2010) and legal challenges to it in the Supreme Court have dramatically transformed the health care system of the United States. While access to care has improved for millions of Americans, costs continue to increase at unsustainable rates. In the next several years, Congress and President Trump will likely seek to modify the implementation of “Obamacare” or replace it with a new system. In this course, students will use the disciplines of history, economics, and philosophy to understand the design of the current U.S. health care system and potential changes to it. Topics will include: the political and legislative history of health care in the United States, America’s system in international perspective, ethical issues of health care financing, efficiency and health outcomes of Medicare and Medicaid, regulation of the private insurance market, the American health delivery system and quality of care, pharmaceutical regulation, and health disparities across demographic groups. Fundamentally, this course is an introduction to public policy analysis. Through reading social science research and writing policy memos, students will dive deep into the technical details of how the U.S. health care system is organized, financed, governed, and negotiated. By the end of the course, students will be able to evaluate evidence, identify trade-offs, and analyze the intersection of policy and politics. Students will also learn skills for how to constructively debate with one another when they disagree about policy recommendations and foundational values.

Introduction to Archaeology (fall semester)

Introduction to Archaeology

This is a one-semester elective that will examine archaeological history, methodology, and theory. Throughout the first half of the course students will be asked to think critically about the way in which archaeology informs our understanding of history. We will examine the evolution of archaeology from an antiquarian pursuit to a science and consider the ways in which archaeology has impacted our interpretation of the historical record. Students will compare specific passages from the Old and New Testaments with the archaeological evidence. Issues of ownership and the exploitation of indigenous populations will frame the second half of the course. Students will think about who owns the past, examining the myriad groups who lay claim to the archaeological record: archaeologists, governments, museums, and indigenous peoples. Finally, we will consider the destructive impact the current political climate has on the archaeological record, evaluating and reconsidering the importance of cultural heritage preservation. Students in the course will have the opportunity to lead class discussions and conduct independent research.

Introduction to Museum Studies (spring semester)

Introduction to Museum Studies

This course will offer a broad survey of the museum world. Students will explore the history of the museum as an institution, the ways in which trends in museum design and the perceived purpose of museums have shifted over time, and the ethical quandaries museum designers and curators must address. The course will focus on history museums in the United States, but will address natural history and art museums, when appropriate, as well as museums abroad. The final project for the course will ask students to apply the theory they have studied to curate, design, and display an exhibition on campus.

Making Sense of Contemporary Politics (spring semester)

Making Sense of Contemporary Politics

Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election came as a surprise to many Americans across the political spectrum, and his presidency has been controversial from its inception. In this course we will seek to understand the meaning of the Trump presidency in light of America's political, cultural, and social history of the past forty years.

Questions that we have considered in Constructing America—who is an American? What role does the U.S. play in the world? What is the proper role of government?—are brought into sharp relief as we investigate a wide range of topics: the evolution of the American Right and of American liberalism; the restructuring of the global economy since the 1970s; evolving U.S. beliefs and policies about race, nationality, and gender in light of changing demographics of American society; the impact of reality television and social media on American politics; the legacies of 9/11, the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the economic crisis of 2008; and the rise of similarly nationalist movements in Europe. We will pay close attention to the policies, pronouncements, and behavior of the Trump administration in its first years, particularly regarding its vision of the function of the federal government and the balance of powers.

Nations Before US: A History of the Indigenous Peoples of North America (spring semester)

Nations Before US: A History of the Indigenous Peoples of North America

This course will examine the experiences of the indigenous of North America, from prehistory through current day, with an in depth look at the nations of the Northeast. Starting with a broad overview to understand the vast diversity of nations that inhabited North America generations before the arrival of Europeans, the early weeks of this course will establish a foundation to understand the worldview of indigenous peoples with regard to their surroundings, the sociopolitical and socioeconomic structures within their nation, and the alliances and tensions with those beyond their territorial homelands. Readings and class discussions will then continue with a focus on the interactions between indigenous groups and, specifically, Dutch and English invaders, occupiers, and settlers of the Northeast with the goal of understanding the dynamic, reciprocal, and unequal relationships that emerged from these encounters. The course will follow both a chronological and thematic direction focusing on topics and concepts that include but are not limited to: treaty and land claims, tribal sovereignty, language revival, cultural appropriation, and national identity.

Urban Studies: Comparative Cities (fall semester)

Urban Studies: Comparative Cities

This one-semester elective will examine historical and contemporary issues in urban planning, governance, and life. This comparative and interdisciplinary course will use New York City as our frame and other cities (in the United States and abroad) as case studies. Students will be asked to think critically about how the natural environment, policy decisions, immigration, and corporate interests have shaped the neighborhoods of New York City and then compare New York’s unique history and experiences with those of other urban landscapes. 

Students will be asked to think about how cities function and to begin working to consciously “read” and examine the built environment in which we all live and study. The class will take field trips to different neighborhoods and institutions in the city. And as a part of their homework, students will be asked to complete at least a few independent field trips either with each other or with their families. This class will challenge students to be more engaged citizens of New York City. 

The course will begin with an overview of the history of 19th and 20th century urban planning in the United States and Europe. Students will learn about the Beaux Arts and City Beautiful movements, Progressive Era Reform, Modernism, New Urbanism, and the variety of contemporary issues facing urban planners, governmental officials and residents of urban areas. Students will gain an introduction to the study of urban studies and to the interdisciplinary approaches (sociological/historical/anthropological) we will take during the course. 

The course will then be grouped around various issues facing contemporary cities, including: public space/parks, infrastructure (waste, energy, transportation), environmental justice, immigration and immigrant neighborhoods, affordable housing, and zoning. The course will culminate in an independent research project.

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